It happened rather suddenly.
One day Melissa Pineo and her sister, Carol, were active as ever. Over the following weeks, however, Carol began to develop excruciating back pain.
So, she had an MRI. It revealed she had several compression fractures in her spine and many other lesions.
After just six weeks in pain, Carol had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma.
“She was very active. This happened I think around January 28 last year, and the Thanksgiving right before that she was visiting me in Arizona and we were hiking and riding bikes and things like that. It’s hard to see her like that,” said Melissa, who lives in Peoria. Carol still lives back in their home state of Massachusetts.
Multiple myeloma, according to the Mayo Clinic, is a type of cancer that forms in plasma cells, a type of white blood cell.
Though plasma cells traditionally help fight infections by creating antibodies to ward off germs, under the duress of multiple myeloma these cells accumulate in bone marrow, effectively crowding out the healthy blood cells.
These cancerous cells then cause complications by producing abnormal proteins, the Mayo Clinic reports.
Now, nearly a year and half after the early 2018 diagnosis, however, Melissa is looking up — and aiming to put an end to the cancer that has affected her sister so severely.
Melissa has signed up with Moving Mountains for Multiple Myeloma. The joint initiative between the Multiple Myeloma Researching Foundation, CURE Media Group and Celgene allows teams of people to hike challenging mountains to raise awareness and money for multiple myeloma.
Over the span of three days, from June 28 through June 30, Melissa will be part of a 22-person team of multiple myeloma patients, caregivers, nurses and doctors that will climb more than 4,000 feet of elevation.
The focus of their trek will be Mount Washington, the highest peak in northeastern United States and most prominent peak east of the Mississippi. The mountain is 6,288 feet above sea level.
“I think in the beginning you just want to do something to help, to make a difference or whatever,” said the athletic Melissa, who has participated in past runs, bike rides, triathlons and hikes. “I just started looking for something that had to do with multiple myeloma.”
Ultimately, Moving Mountains stood out.
If nothing else, she said the idea that people like doctors, pharmacists, patients and other caregivers will be the ones hiking alongside her helped sell the concept.
But Melissa — who spent eight years in active duty and 18 in the Air Force Reserve before retiring in March — admitted it will be challenge.
“I don’t hike,” Melissa said with a laugh. “I don’t do hills if I can help it.”
To get involved, however, one doesn’t simply sign up. As part of the effort, participants acknowledge they must raise at least $2,500.
“I was a little worried about that because it can be a high amount, but unfortunately I think because of the situation that my sister’s in and luckily the network of friends that she and I have, I’ve already hit the minimum at least. So, that’s a good thing,” Melissa said.
Bonnie Moore, Melissa’s longtime friend since middle school who lives back in Massachusetts, will join her. An avid hiker, as Melissa described, Moore has always been there for her and Carol, and immediately offered to lend a hand in the battle against multiple myeloma.
A contractor by trade, Moore has helped with everything from installing grab bars and fixing things for Carol to simply delivering ice cream from their favorite dairy on the East Coast.
“Even if she hadn’t been there physically for me, she was very supportive,” Melissa said. “She just was there for me to talk to and understands the relationship (between Melissa and Carol).”
When Carol got her initial diagnosis, Melissa admitted she felt bleak about the future.
“The first thing we heard was she’s covered in lesions, and we didn’t know what that meant. Like, was it some other cancer that metastasized or whatever?” Melissa said. “And then when we got the diagnosis, I didn’t feel any better because it didn’t mean anything to me.”
The more research she has done and more professionals with whom she has spoken, however, the more she has learned about improvements in treatment options for those suffering from multiple myeloma, including her sister.
“(Carol) had an oncologist in Winchester (Cancer Center), which is where she had most of her care and stuff. And she was wonderful oncologist, but until we went to Dana-Farber (Cancer Institute) in Boston and talked to a multiple myeloma specialist, I felt very bleak about the future,” Melissa explained.
With a laugh, she added, “The internet doesn’t always help. But seeing that doctor, he said great things about where the research has gone and how now it can be a manageable disease. He compared it to diabetes or high blood pressure, where you can kind of maintain the disease. It will never go away at this point, but for some after a stem cell transplant it can be managed using chemos and strong drugs like that. But it can be held at bay.”
Compare that to when the initial diagnosis was received.
“I think that definitely when (Carol) was first diagnosed I had people come up to me and say that their relative, whoever it was, had been diagnosed 10 years ago and was dead within a month and things like that,” Melissa said.
Carol is more to Melissa than just a sister, however. Melissa describes her as a friend, mother figure, role model and inspiration.
The two grew up back in Massachusetts. Melissa was the “baby of the family,” while Carol — the closest in age to Melissa out of their siblings — is seven years older.
“Carol became not just my big sister, but kind of a mom figure,” Melissa said. “And we have everything in common, too, like love of sports and love doing things outdoors.”
That love of sports and the outdoors may prove useful for Melissa, who has a little over a month left until the hike.
But now she must get in a preparative mindset. She has been running, biking and swimming, and said she is also trying to hit hiking spots like Camelback Mountain and Piestewa Peak.
“Even though they’re your shorter hikes, they’re brutally steep,” she said.
For more information about Moving Mountains for Multiple Myeloma and the Mount Washington hike, visit movingmountainsformultiplemyeloma.com/mountwashington19.